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Nikolas Cruz pleads guilty on all charges in Parkland school shooting rampage

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

In a Florida courtroom today, Nikolas Cruz pleaded guilty to all charges in his attack on Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018. Cruz was a troubled former student at the school. He killed 17 people and wounded 17 others. His guilty plea means that at minimum, he's facing consecutive life sentences and will die in prison.

But as NPR's Greg Allen reports, prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Several families of those killed and wounded were in the courtroom to see face-to-face the person responsible for so much pain and suffering. Since shortly after his arrest, Cruz's lawyer said he would plead guilty to all charges in exchange for a sentence of life. Prosecutors and many of the victim's families, though, have been adamant that they will only be satisfied with a death sentence.

Today, Cruz told Judge Elizabeth Scherer he would plead guilty to all charges - 17 counts of murder and 17 of attempted murder. The judge spent a half-hour questioning him to make sure he understood what this meant.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELIZABETH SCHERER: Do you understand that if you're on death row waiting to be sentenced, you can't say, you know what? That wasn't a good strategy. Maybe I should have gone to trial and required the state to prove it. It will be too late at that time. Do you understand?

NIKOLAS CRUZ: I understand.

ALLEN: The judge read each of the individual counts, naming each of the 34 killed and wounded. Cruz entered guilty to each charge, and the judge accepted his plea. Prosecutor Michael Satz then presented the facts of the case - a timeline of Cruz's shooting rampage on February 14 of 2018. It began with Cruz's Uber ride to the Parkland High School, where he entered a classroom building carrying a bag with illegally obtained AR-15-style rifle and lots of ammunition. It was an emotional moment for the families present as Satz detailed Cruz's attacks on each of his 34 victims, including the first four he encountered.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL SATZ: Gina Montalto, 14 years old, who was sitting in the hallway in front of classroom 12-15, was shot four times and died of her wounds. Martin Duque Anguiano, 14 years old, was shot eight times, and he died of his wounds. Luke Hoyer, 15 years old, was shot twice, and he died of his wounds.

ALLEN: The chilling litany of the dead and wounded was difficult for families to hear. Tony Montalto, Gina's father, was in court with his wife, Jennifer.

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TONY MONTALTO: Clearly, my wife was tearing up, and I was quite emotional, too. It's - there is no way to hear about how many times your daughter was shot by a cold and calculating killer that is easy to take. It's - it was a very disturbing day.

ALLEN: With the guilty plea, the trial now moves to the penalty phase. The prosecution will present its case, including testimony from victims who will give firsthand accounts of Cruz's attack and the long-lasting impact. The defense is likely to present what it hopes will be mitigating factors that could help him avoid the death penalty, including his well-documented mental health issues. The guilty plea could be seen as part of an effort by Cruz to show remorse.

In court, the judge allowed him to make a statement in which he apologized to the families of his victims.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CRUZ: I am very sorry for what I did, and I have to live with it every day. And if I were to get a second chance, I would do everything in my power to try to help others. And I am doing this for you. And I do not care if you do not believe me. And I love you. And I know you don't believe me. I have to live with this every day.

ALLEN: Families of the victims rejected the apology. Tony Montalto called it ridiculous.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MONTALTO: If you wanted to do something for our families, you should have started by not killing our loved ones. And our daughter, Gina, was already helping people at 14. She was a volunteer at our church. She was a Girl Scout and out there doing things in this community to help others. And the shooter does not deserve that opportunity.

ALLEN: The judge says jury selection for the penalty phase will begin in January. She acknowledged that although it's been more than 3 1/2 years since the attack, impaneling an impartial jury may take some time in a community that's still recovering.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.